Where Are We?( aka The Bailout Meets Climate Change)

It's time to take stock.

We've all been keeping track of the faltering pulse of the financial markets, and now understand more than we'd like about the fragility of the global financial system. But something else came up in September – another game-changer. Since 2000 we have been working in a world where the most widely used tallies of recent carbon emissions came from models – projections based on past trends continued into the future. They were the basis for key documents, like the 2006 Stern Review, that have guided climate politics and policy. They were also – we now know – way off.

Stern worked from the assumption that emissions were increasing at roughly 0.95% per year. New empirical data shows that emissions are in fact rising at more than two and a half times that speed.

That conclusion comes from a September report released by the Tyndall Centre, one of the UK's most respected climate change research institutes. Combing the best available data on emissions, they calculate that the actual rate of increase is closer to 2.4% per year. That's no small difference. Even more than in the markets, a few percentage points here can change the world.

What it means, in a nutshell, is that we are at – or beyond – the worst case scenarios proposed so far by any reputable source. If we've been comforting ourselves by thinking that we'll probably fall somewhere in the middle of the range, we need to realize that we won't.

On the lips of politicians and policy makers worldwide, 2 degrees Celsius has emerged as the consensus on how much warmer things can get in the next 100 years without causing real havoc. Anymore warming and our children and grandchildren will see really unpleasant consequences: dramatic flooding, increases in severe weather events that endanger both settlements and global food supplies, astounding biodiversity losses and major disruptions of national and global economies. To keep us below that point, the new Tyndall report concludes, emissions will have to level off in 2015, and then decrease globally by about 6% per year.

How do you make sense of those numbers? For comparison, that means reductions larger even than those that took place in Eastern Europe when the former-Soviet economy collapsed, and well beyond the reductions that resulted from the 40-fold increase in France's nuclear capacity over the past 25 years, or Britain's massive conversion from coal to gas-fired power plants. These are cuts we are unlikely to make.

Even levelling off by 2020, and keeping temperatures from rising more than 4dC, means rapid action in the short term, an “urgent decarbonization” of the world's energy systems, and cuts in the developed world that go beyond 6% so as to make room for increased emissions from developing nations. The report concludes that short of a “planned economic recession” it is unlikely that we will manage to meet even these reduced targets.

Well, the recession is here. And how we deal with it will have as much effect on climate change as it does on national economies around the world. To see positive change, we need to be working from where we really are – not where we wished we were. The early years of climate policy were defined by good intentions, eco-fashion and a broader cultural acceptance of environmental values. Pushed by our new understanding of the problem, and the opportunity presented by the need for concrete projects to support our economies we've entered a new phase. A phase that has to be defined by results. In the next post, I'll try to trace the outlines of what that might look like.

Welcome to Phase II.


1 Response to "Where Are We?( aka The Bailout Meets Climate Change)"

Lunatrix said... 11 November 2008 at 13:15

Great entry. Now the question is who is going to do what. Really, are we up for the challenge? With or without recession, it seems we tend to be slow when we change our ways of life -- and in this case, what we need to change, first and foremost, is our way of life. Our ambitions, hopes, and dreams. I think we need to sit down and redefine what "the good life" means, but can't think of a person in a position of power who would be able and willing to do that.

So, my problem with your entry is a bit like the egg and the chicken issue: who's going to bring about phase II, politicians, the economy, citizens ...?


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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